Kendall Jenner recently made tabloid headlines as the latest celebrity to declare herself a part of the “Free the Nipple” movement, which challenges the legal double-standards that let men, but not women, go topless. Celebrities including Cara Delevingue, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna have all demonstrated their own support of the cause, and they join a long line of women—dating back decades, if not centuries—who made the same personal and political decision to buck norms and challenge these kinds of restrictions on their bodily autonomy.
Whether or not to wear a bra, of course, is a deeply personal choice that might reflect a woman’s upbringing, inherent preferences, lifestyle and the safety and tolerance of her environment as much as her body type. The problem is that Jenner’s decision isn’t being interpreted as a personal choice at all. Instead, going braless is frequently viewed as a choice intended to make a sexual statement—perhaps even to communicate sexual availability. Jenner, who cited comfort as a major reason for her choice, has been met with a multitude of accusations of promiscuity. Social media-based movements like “Free the Nipple” are highlighting the hypocrisy and the arbitrary nature of some of the expectations for women’s self-presentation.
The drive for gender parity that centers women’s bodies has not been limited to the issue of bras, however. Celebrities like Alicia Keys have been spearheading recent (and controversial) anti-makeup movements . A 16-year old French girl named Adele Labo started “Princesses have body hair,” a Twitter campaign that encouraged young women to embrace their natural body hair. Her hashtag, too, (#LesPrincessesOntDesPoils) has received more than its share of negative reactions—in this case, primarily disgust.
As someone who hasn’t been shaving or wearing a bra for several years, I’ve noticed that this matches neatly up with the key contradiction in the opposite reactions that these two choices elicit from others. Failing to wear a bra is widely considered a stunt “designed” to attract men’s sexual attentions—while failing to shave may be considered purposefully off-putting and rebelliously, aggressively feminist. But unless one considers rebellious feminism a hallmark of the effort to attract male attention (hint: it’s not), these juxtaposed interpretations don’t make any sense at all.
If we could briefly apply Occam’s razor here, however, it should pretty quickly become clear that a much simpler, single explanation could make both choices more intelligible: Sometimes women don’t feel like modifying the way they present their bodies to the world, at the cost of their time, energy and comfort. By extension, a woman who goes braless but shaves her legs or vice versa is by no means necessarily attempting to communicate either sexual availability or a gleeful provocation of the patriarchy.
Do those prepared to critique both choices as representative of opposite motivations on some level understand this? Is it this understanding, that some women choose not to conform to our society’s precise expectations for their physical presentation, that really rankles?
All of this, of course, is just part of a much broader issue where others feel that choices that women make about their bodies are meant to actively communicate or involve something about the viewer. These viewers who make such assumptions aren’t necessarily male—a girl at my high school once told me that she found looking at my legs disgusting (“Then don’t look at them,” I replied, a little dumbfounded)—but when they are, the consequences, especially of interpreting a woman’s personal choice as purposefully, invitingly sexual, can be a lot more dire.
Women’s decisions regarding self-presentation, therefore, are not operating in a vacuum. A recent sociology paper revealed that the extent to which a woman groomed—an umbrella term encompassing everything from applying makeup to styling hair—appeared to be highly correlated with her salary. No such link was found for men. In its final finding that grooming was heavily correlated—again primarily for women—with perceived attractiveness, the study built on previous research that has long suggested that good looks have a tendency to draw in more money, even in a supposedly impartial workplace.
The bottom line? Unlike men, many women are forced to take special care as to how they present themselves, in order for their professional work to be recognized.
Time spent on such grooming isn’t negligible. According to a recent study, the average British woman spends 1,728 hours—or 72 full days over the course of her lifetime—shaving her legs. The study’s other tallies were equally alarming, including an average of 52 days in a woman’s lifetime spent on removing her makeup and another 294—the majority of an entire year of a person’s life—styling her hair.
This is not a vanity issue. The consequences of failing to put in the time and effort required to conform to these social norms can be harsh enough to make them disturbingly essential—a baseline price paid only by women for everything from social acceptance into both male and female circles, to recognition and promotion at work.
Very rarely are men’s choices of attire subjected to quite as much scrutiny, or interpreted as such intentionally political statements. Women alone are expected to modify their body to such an extent: concealing some parts, cutting others away entirely, before it can be presented publicly. And we accept the necessity of doing so, so wholeheartedly that the unaltered female body has become stranger to us than the altered one.
A woman who doesn’t have the time or energy or finds it personally uncomfortable or very simply unnecessary to undergo these alterations can be held actively accountable for that failure by a society that interprets mild nonconformity as zealous rebellion, and seems to punish it accordingly. That woman is therefore compelled to go out of her way to avoid the kind of responses earned by such “strangeness”—responses that, unfortunately, are even in the modern world not very strange at all.